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Prison Hulks of the Thames

· Fine Book Collecting,Prison Hulks,The Thames,England,Australia

Over the past several years, I have come to realize that when it comes to buying books there is a big difference between being a collector/reader and being a book dealer. As a collector you buy books that appeal to you personally but as a dealer you buy books that you think you can resell. And the latter encapsulates a greater learning experience because of the research that goes into understanding and pricing books on topics on which you know little or even nothing. The book I bought on the uses of cyanide a year or so ago, comes to mind. Not to worry, Glenda, it was about industrial uses!

I have read a number of books on the history of Great Britain. That and having lived in England, I am pretty comfortable with my knowledge of the land of my ancestors. Last year, as a collector/reader, I bought a book by Jonathan Schneer called The Thames Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2005. I read it almost right away, it was one of the three books on my bedside table for a while. The importance of the Thames on English history cannot be over emphasized. London was founded duo to its position on that great tidal river.

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Here I am reading away, when in the chapter called "Dark Waters", I came across the history of the English Prison Hulks. I had never heard of them before, not surprisingly because I am sure many conveniently skip this horrid chapter in the history of England. Newgate Prison gets lots of press, and it was pretty dismal as well. But nothing like the Hulks.

The prison hulks first came into use after the War of American Independence, which deprived Britain of a convenient dumping ground for convicted criminals. From then through the early part of the nineteenth century, British authorities who faced a growing prison population realized that they could warehouse part of it in ruined ships that were no longer of any other use. Thus, former ships of the line, like the Sandwich and the Nassau, came to a horrible prison of their own. Stripped of their masts and left to rot on the river edges. Just like the convicts. By the beginning of 1828 there were 4,446 men in ten vessels. Many convicts bound for Australia were first imprisoned on hulks and set to hard labour on the river. The "hulk" convicts would be put to work building the dockyards in East London. Transportation halfway around the world represented a blessed release.

If one prisoner became ill, nearly all did. Of 632 prisoners admitted to the hulk "Justitia" between 1776 and 1778, 176 sickened and died, a death rate of nearly one in three. In the Woolwich hulks there were outbreaks of dysentery in 1816, smallpox in 1818, typhus in 1821, cholera in 1832.

OK – enough!

Now I knew about the prison hulks. On this past Thursday, I came across The English Prison Hulks by W. Branch-Johnson, Christopher Johnson Publishers, London, 1957. I snatched it up! Cause I am an expert on Hulks. The foreword is by Hugh Klare, Secretary, Howard League for Penal Reform. And, you will notice from the photo of the frontispiece, that the H.M.S. York, a fine looking ship, was a hulk in Portsmouth, so these monstrosities were not just on the Thames.

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As always, I bring acquisitions to Glenda to get her feedback on books, condition, etc. I handed her the book, and was about to go into my spiel about Prison Hulks, when I noticed she was quite nonchalant about the book. So, I asked "do you know about the prison hulks?". Of course, she answered. My smarty pants ego was deflated. She is very well read.

I have priced it up and put it into Raven & Gryphon Fine Books inventory. But, maybe I should read it first.